Out in the cold
Public needs to see homeless as real people
With so many variables creating and perpetuating homelessness, and with winter arriving soon, there is no one solution for the Seacoast and New Hampshire as a whole.
However, people connected to homelessness locally say the first step — the one that can make the greatest immediate difference for homeless people — is addressing the general public’s lack of awareness.
“There may be similarities, but everyone is unique,” said Rochester Welfare Director Todd Marsh. “Otherwise good, intelligent people lack the understanding and lack the knowledge, and they might treat individuals badly because they might feel threatened, or because it’s not the landscape they want to project. It can be uncomfortable seeing someone who’s in that type of situation, including for the people who might be a paycheck or two from a similar situation.”
While substance abuse and mental health disorders are common in the homeless community, Lauren Berman of the Community Action Partnership of Strafford County said those issues don’t define people who are homeless, nor are all of them unwilling to receive help just because they live in the woods, another common perception.
“People are not aware of what homelessness looks like,” Berman said. “It’s much different than it was 20 to 30 years ago.”
Homeless people say the lack of awareness isn’t just with community members, but also with some of the people who work for organizations that help the homeless.
“I just wish there was a place where it was all open arms,” said Tom Churchwell, a Portsmouth native living in a tent in Dover. “The politics suck. Instead of looking at us as individuals with individual talents — no matter what that talent is — they block you in (to generalized types of homelessness).”
Short term and long term
There are several needs more tangible than awareness that would benefit from immediate action, as well as long-term ideas that can get started with a little groundwork in the short term.
As the temperatures drop, Phyllis Woods, a former Republican state representative from Dover, has been focused on trying to find local churches willing to provide short-term shelter and beds to individuals who would otherwise be exposed out in the winter elements.
When winter comes, it’s not uncommon for some homeless individuals to seek lodging in local motels, couch-surf in someone’s apartment or seek inexpensive temporary lodging, including through the abundant winter cottage rentals at Hampton Beach.
One local motel owner, whose business is located near where homeless individuals have camped, said he doesn’t rent to the homeless or individuals seeking a room through his local welfare department. He admitted he has judged homeless individuals even though he didn’t know their full stories.
However, he said he does provide odd maintenance jobs to one homeless person because he saw the man was motivated to improve his life situation. This motel owner said he believes other businesses should take time to build similar trust and understanding with those who want to help themselves, rather than turn them away and assume every homeless individual is a negative part of their community.
“They’re also human. If they get the opportunity to come out (of homelessness), they will,” said the motel owner, who asked not to be identified. “Every individual like me, every business person has to understand this. You have to help the community. Whatever you are earning, you are earning from the community. You should help to give it back.”
Many said municipalities also need to do more to create incentives to increase affordable housing development. Return on investment, microscopic rental vacancies and the limited supply of land and existing stock prevent countless residents from enjoying stable housing, they said.
Woods has been bringing together concerned people from across the social service and housing communities for regular meetings at her house. Each meeting is meant to discuss potential solutions in a workshop-style setting. She said she has at least one investor willing to contribute $100,000 toward the purchase or construction of a transitional housing facility or new permanent supportive housing for the area’s homeless, and she’s hoping to build other partnerships to make that facility a reality.
“We have to challenge people," Woods said.
The big picture
On a broader level, if New Hampshire wants to look at adopting a new model of assistance for homeless people, it could implement a statewide Housing First program, according to Martha Stone, executive director of Portsmouth’s Cross Roads House and a member of the Greater Seacoast Coalition to End Homelessness.
Stone said the Housing First approach, which is well established and used in Boston, Oregon, Utah and other places, prioritizes providing permanent housing before case management begins. In some cases, Housing First participants bypass shelters altogether. The idea is that housing serves as the foundation for someone looking to improve their lives, while Stone said it’s common in New Hampshire for housing to be one of the later or final stages of many organizations’ assistance.
The Concord Coalition to End Homelessness and Cross Roads co-implemented a Housing First program in August 2016 to help serve chronically homeless people, including those who don’t want help through a shelter. Since then, Stone said, more than two dozen people – split evenly between Concord and the Seacoast – have found new homes through the program, and all are still participating in continued care.
While there is some debate about the effectiveness of the Housing First model, Stone said there are measurable numbers that indicate Utah, Boston and Oregon have reduced shelter recidivism because participants are more motivated to both remain in housing as well as continue to improve their lives.
“I talk about it as having another tool in our toolbox,” said Stone, adding she believes Housing First should supplement other Granite State models and programs, not replace them. “We need a lot of different resources to serve the very diverse (population).”
For any of these ideas to be successful, officials say more wraparound case management services are needed – through shelters, nonprofits and social service agencies – so fewer individuals are cut free the moment they get back on their feet.
Few organizations have funding to continue robust case management on an ongoing basis, and even the bigger ones that do it now – like Cross Roads – only have the equivalent of one full-time person tasked with doing the work. They assist and coordinate services for homeless individuals in various ways, many of which are focused on prevention, including the prevention of evictions.
Officials say none of the factors that drive homelessness exist in a vacuum, so any attempt to solve the symptoms of homelessness won’t be successful without a broader, more collaborative system of assistance.
“It’s kind of like putting up the walls of a house,” said Rochester Police Sgt. Mike Miehle, who performs a lot of homeless outreach in the Lilac City. “The roof’s not going to stay up if only one wall is up. If you only fix (housing), you’re not going to keep the roof up. You’ve got to make sure there’s some type of income and that they get stable, then work on the addiction and whatever other issues are there. It’s a complex problem.”